is a podcast that turns stories into songs, featuring David Gilmour, Joyce Carol Oates, Steve Earle, Roxane Gay, Amanda Shires, Susan Orlean and Katie Melua. You can hear an exclusive preview of next week’s episode featuring Mark Harris and Anna Kline, only at Paste.
Like most people, Anna Kline had heard of the director Mike Nichols. The guitarist and singer of the band Swift Silver knew many of his movies, especially The Graduate. But it wasn’t until she read Mark Harris’ biography of Nichols that she learned the story of his arrival in America.
“His early life was what really spoke to me,” Kline says.
Along with The Graduate, Nichols would go on to direct Silkwood, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Birdcage, as well as more than 25 Broadway shows like Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple and a Tony-winning revival of Death of a Salesman. But he arrived in America as a traumatized Jewish refugee fleeing Hitler’s Germany. In 1939, a seven-year-old Nichols and his four-year-old brother were sent alone on a six-day journey by boat to New York City.
Nichols’ biographer, Mark Harris, notes that at the time he knew only two phrases, “I do not speak English” and “Please do not kiss me.”
“It took him decades to fully absorb the fact that he survived something,” Harris says. “The difference between making that six-day journey and not making it was the difference between life and death.”
As if that were not enough for a young boy to contend with, Nichols was also bald, having survived an early illness that left him without any hair. Nichols’ father was a proponent of the stern and rigid psychology of the 1940s, and so did not allow the boy to wear a wig or prosthetic eyebrows.
“His father believed that the best thing for him would be to just get used to it,” Harris recounts. “It wasn’t until Mike’s father died that he was allowed to get a hairpiece for the first time.”
It was this portrait of survival in the face of heartbreaking vulnerability that resonated for Kline. The song she wrote in response to Nichols’ story is an uptempo old-school tune called “Picture Show.” The vintage vibe of the song came naturally to Kline and her bandmate (and husband) John Looney, as they have been using the pandemic to experiment with and expand Swift Silver’s sound.
“Over the past few years John and I dabbled in swing,” Kline says, and then laughs. “Swing music—I should clarify that!”
Ben Arthur (@MyHeart on Twitter) is the creator and host of SongWriter. His latest song, “Persistent Ghosts,” is about traumatic memory.